What is one of Egypt’s first independent theater troupes, El-Warsha, doing putting on a performance of a play written by a European in 1914? In restaging Franz Kafka’s “The Penal Colony,”is El-Warsha trying to resist the pressures to produce art that speaks directly to the revolution?
Perhaps, in part.
Hassan al-Geretly director of the troupe and of this production says he had always wanted to revive the play, one that they first put on in 1989, adapted by filmmaker Ahmed Qassim. With an apprenticeship project coming to an end, Geretly now felt that he had a suitable cast.
“But while there was no conscious decision to refer to the times in which we find ourselves, it is not by chance that certain things nag at you, throb almost,” he says.
The story takes place as a visitor arrives at an unnamed penal colony. He is invited by the officer to observe an execution using a complex machine that performs “exquisite torture.” The condemned is strapped into the machine facedown and the law that he has broken is inscribed into his skin with a complex system of needles for 12 hours. Conceived by the old commandant, the machine is designed so that he does not lose consciousness until six hours have elapsed. In the past, thousands would turn out to witness the execution, but now under the new commandant, the officer remains the machine’s sole proponent.
He invites the visitor to attend, and as he is explaining to him the intricacies of the machine, as the condemned and his guard sit in the background, he begs him to use his authority to intervene with the new commandant. The officer says the new commander is just waiting for an excuse to ban it, and he is almost frenzied in his defense of the machine and his imploring of the visitor to do something.
When it becomes clear that the visitor will not intervene, the officer unstraps the prisoner, and puts himself into the machine. The law he will have inscribed into his body is “Be just,” but the machine malfunctions, and simply pierces through his body, killing him quickly.
El-Warsha’s studio theater is small and intimate, magnifying the horror of the play and the machine.
The officer can be seen to represent the system that would rather die than change; the new commander, the opposite, the willingness to change to ensure survival. Indeed, the penal colony remains, under the new commander, a place people want to leave – at the end, the condemned and his guard beg the visitor to take them with him.
Speaking of the officer, Geretly says, “The lack of subtleness, the violent, unidirectional, adamant, inflexible logic makes me think of Israel, of [Egypt’s] military council.” But there is no one in the play who takes a moral stand; the closest we have is the officer’s passion. The visitor on the other hand is shocked, but primarily because he is unaccustomed to this system of justice.
“He reminds me,” Geretly says, “of those experts and NGO workers who come from abroad, they know how things are done at home, they prefer that system, but they do not necessarily think morally or ethically.”
One possible reading of the play is as an assertion of the rationalism of the Enlightenment project over the barbarism of torture. But a reading more attuned to the details of the story suggests the opposite: an assertion of the Enlightenment as a myth that disavows this sort of violence as barbaric and senseless, in this move concealing its own barbarity.
The penal colony, like contemporary Egypt, is at a moment marked by the tension between rupture and continuity. On the one hand the machine associated with the old commander only has one adherent willing to swear his allegiance to it publicly: the officer. On the other, there are intimations that the totalitarian logic has been simply replaced by a different one –– a move to another system that is not necessarily more just.
The machine enacts a spectacle of violence, of in/justice, inscribing the power and the law into the body. The spectacle of torture competes with another spectacle. The officer has a plan to save the machine, which depends on the visitor talking to the new commandant, who turns “such meetings into a spectacle. A gallery has been built, which is always full of spectators.” In other words, the people who used to watch the execution now attend a different spectacle of power.
It is not simply brute force that lies behind the power of the penal colony, but the power of the law, and the violence that inheres in its implementation. Indeed, torture in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt was technically outside of the law, but arguably intrinsic to the functioning of “law and order.” And for some, the end of such practices is what would constitute a definitive break between pre- and post- Mubarak’s Egypt.
Writing about a state in which the budget of the Interior Ministry was larger than that of health and education put together, Aida Seif al-Dawla, founder of Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, wrote in 2009 that “abuse was integral to the regime of control.”
In Kafka’s original story, the condemned man is somewhat pathetic. Kafka writes he was so like a submissive dog that he could be allowed to wander off only to return at the sound of a whistle when the execution was due to begin. This submissiveness is not present in El-Warsha’s production. He will have “Honor thy superiors” engraved into his body over several hours. He was meant to be keeping guard for a captain, and in the early hours of the morning the captain checked to see if he was doing his duty; he had fallen asleep. The captain wakes him up with a lash from his whip. The man, instead of quivering and begging for forgiveness, grabs the captain’s leg shouting, “Throw that whip away, or I will eat you alive.” The condemned man is not some wretched passive being; he is a man with agency. It is almost as if the captain was hoping to find that he was asleep, so that he could exercise a violent authority.
A number of the torture cases documented by Al-Nadeem are precisely about the breaches of class codes on which society is based. For instance, the case of a man who quit a job at the home of a former minister who was left with half his body paralyzed, the child of 11 who was burnt on an electric stove for stealing three packs of tea, or the man who refused to confess to stealing a cow and died a few days after he was set on fire.
It is not only the torture embedded in legal practice that remains a key concern for those hoping for an Egypt that looks different from how it did under Mubarak. Many commentators of developments over the past 18 months have observed how the law, the courts, the justice system have been utilized towards the ends of establishing and entrenching power.
Another of Kafka’s great works, “The Trial,” written in the same year presents a very different judicial model. “The Trial” –– Egyptianized by Sonallah Ibrahim in “The Committee” (Al-Lajna, 1987) –– is less about corporeal punishment, and more about surveillance, documentation, bureaucracy and of course another spectacle of justice, that of the trial.
Watching the play in Cairo in 2012, “The Penal Colony” stands as a kind of warning not to be easily fooled, an invitation to think about the relationship between rupture and continuity, and not to mistake the symbols of rupture for its substance, an invitation to remember that it is not simply change the revolution sought, but change that is just.